Norfolk Island has shaken off its reputation as a holiday destination for 'the newly wed and nearly dead', writes John Borthwick.
'Fit for Angels and Eagles," was French navigator Comte de Laperouse's parting shot to Norfolk Island. Having spent two days attempting unsuccessfully to land there during heavy seas in 1787, he sailed off - to Botany Bay - dismissing the lovely island with a Gallic sniff.
This verdant, 3450-hectare isle, moated by turquoise lagoons and thumping surf, juts from the Pacific some 1400 kilometres east of Ballina like a volcanic periscope that has popped up for a quick look-see. Today, a direct flight from Sydney or Brisbane gets you there in a couple of hours.
I've come to see what's new, old and eccentric on Norfolk. And what's on offer beyond the traditional tours of ruins and snoozy stays once characterised as "for the newly wed and nearly dead". Tourism - Norfolk's major industry - promotes its upmarket accommodation, quality dining, and activities from golf, fishing and cycling to day spas and diving.
Norfolk has long been known for its contrary colonial history. From 1825 to 1854, this green and pleasant isle housed a British penal settlement where punishments were so vindictive that some convicts here preferred a death sentence to life. The prison closed, and in 1856 Norfolk changed overnight when it became the new home for 194 relocated Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of Fletcher Christian's Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian companions. With their arrival, brutality in the name of God, Queen and class was replaced by Christian civility, a quality still widely evident today.
Karlene Christian, an old friend who is a descendant of Fletcher Christian, shows me around her eight-by-five-kilometre island, pointing out what has changed, or hasn't, since my last visit too many years ago. As we drive the island's banyan-shaded lanes and cliff-top roads, she explains some of its unique, if not eccentric features.
Norfolk was the westernmost point of Polynesian settlement in the Pacific. A substantial colony thrived here until about 700 years ago.
The British settled Norfolk in early 1788, just weeks after Sydney. In fact, this fertile, sub-tropical island was Sydney's "breadbasket" until mainland farms started to produce crops, much later.
When its penal settlement closed in 1854, a treasury of grand architecture remained along the island's south coast at Kingston. Probably the best-preserved Georgian settlement in the southern hemisphere, this historic domain is the oldest of Australia's 11 World Heritage convict sites.
Thanks to that UNESCO listing, Norfolk's seaside golf course is the only one in the world with World Heritage protection. It's also one of the cheapest - for just $70 you can play unlimited golf for a week. As Australia's only self-governing external territory, Norfolk has its own Government House (looking out over that golf course). The elegant 1804 stone villa is Australia's oldest working public building and oldest vice-regal residence.
Across the rolling green in front of Government House, I take the plunge into the sparkling, but ominously named, Slaughter Bay. I'm snorkelling just metres from the shore, but find a cornucopia of corals blooming before my mask, shot through by the laser trails of tiny coloured fish. "That's nothing compared to the main dives," says Karlene, who is also a dive master, as she points towards to the lagoon's fringe reef. "Beyond it are plenty of world-class dives with drop-offs, swim-through caverns and grottoes, and 50-metre visibility," she adds.
"Our official anthem is still God Save the Queen," Glenn Buffett, the energetic general manager of Norfolk Island Tourism, tells me over a delicious seafood lunch. The queen in question, however, is not Elizabeth, but her formidable great-grandmother, Victoria, who invited the overcrowded Pitcairn Islanders to resettle here in 1856.
Glenn runs through a further list of Norfolk's eccentricities. It boasts the oldest cricket pitch in the southern hemisphere (the first match was played here in 1838). It is the only place in Australia where cows, chickens and ducks have official right of way on the road, and is also our only place with no McDonald's, graffiti, snakes, poisonous spiders, traffic lights or income tax.
With no lifesavers either, I take care next day when bodysurfing in the churning waves of Anson Bay, which sits cupped by a brilliant amphitheatre of cliffs on the north-west coast. I've left my rental car unlocked, with keys in the ignition. This is surely the only place in Australia where no one locks doors and where the definition of paranoia might be removing your car keys.
I drop into Two Chimneys Winery to sample its offerings and to meet the owners, Rod and Noelene McAlpine, who've placed their faith in Norfolk's soils and economy. While waiting for their first vines to bear fruit, they are serving mainland Cassegrain wines plus a scrumptious array of tasting plates. Along with other homegrown enterprises such as Norfolk Blue beef and an Arabica coffee plantation, this boutique winery is an indicator of how the Norfolk palate has evolved beyond famous fish-fry barbecues. A dozen food outlets along the main street of Burnt Pine (surely the most cheerfully obtuse name of any "capital" this side of the Black Stump) offer fine local produce and seafood, all served with easy, island grace.
Norfolkers such as Karlene and Glenn converse with me in standard Australian English, but among themselves will use their island's second official language, Norf'k, a mellifluous patois blend of 18th-century English and Tahitian - and a reminder that one third of the population (of 1800 people) still proudly claim Bounty descent. Over meals in stylish little eateries such as Hilli's, The Olive or Golden Orb, I overhear familiar utterances whose meaning, however, hovers just out of reach. "Watawieh yourle?" - Hello, how are you? - says someone. "Wesa mussa dun" - We're almost done - remarks another.
Island-made liqueurs, farm-fresh produce and five-star lodgings. Their own language and postage stamps. Roads that thread through the pines, and lush pastures to bring you to secret bays or grand vistas of the 360-degree horizon. Norfolk has plenty of attractions, but also likes to boast that it doesn't have it all - including Macca's, traffic lights, high-rise and low-life.
It is a superb place for finding surprises. I mosey through the historic Kingston cemetery, where every headstone tells a story, of a drowned whaler, a Pitcairn settler and, of course, of convicts. One poignant marker recalls the 105-year-old forger Thomas Wright, who was handed a 14-year sentence at age 101. The cagey old lag found his own way to beat the gulag's odious system - by dying just four years into his term.
A cobalt sea buffers Norfolk Island against the tumultuous world beyond. You can sense the redundancy of urgency. Locals take Wednesday afternoon off - a tradition that allows everyone to play sport. The phone directory is the only one in the world that prints nicknames (Baldie, Bizzibee, Carrots, Shagsy et al). And no building may be taller than a Norfolk Island pine.
This is surely my favourite South Pacific island. So, see yorle morla. Ai gwen naawi . . . See you tomorrow. I'm going swimming.
The writer travelled as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON NORFOLK ISLAND
Join a tour to discover this World Heritage domain, then use a museum pass for the best of Norfolk's historic collections. museums.gov.nf
This rugged, uninhabited island is home to many species of birds and is perfect for fishing, swimming and reef-walking. Guided tours with Karlene Christian, phone 50934.
Norfolk's biggest bash is Bounty Day (June 6), when everyone dons period costume to re-enact the arrival of the Pitcairners. Other annual events cover squash, tennis, rock'n'roll, golf and country music. norfolkisland.com.au
Explore the beaches, national park, giant trees and little restaurants. Give the "Norfolk Wave" to other cars. Leave your keys in the ignition.
EAT IT UP
A mix of British and Tahitian foods includes pilhai (baked kumera), mudda (banana dumplings) and poisson cru. Don't miss a cliff-top fish fry.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Norfolk Island from Sydney (Friday and Monday) and Brisbane (Saturday and Tuesday). Flight time 2½ hours. Ph 1800 005 563. airnewzealand.com.au. You need a passport but no visa. Medicare doesn't cover Norfolk Island, so have travel insurance. Australian currency is used. The international telephone prefix is +6723.
Broad Leaf Villas, Taylors Road, Burnt Pine. Conveniently located, self-catering, four-star retreat; $265 a night includes free car hire. See broadleafvillas.com. The Tin Sheds, Burnt Pine. Spacious, self-contained apartments. AAA-rated five-star. Adults only. $425 a night, includes a new Fiat 500. See tinshedsnorfolkisland.com.
SEE + DO
Fletcher's Mutiny Cyclorama. Excellent 360-degree panoramic mural depicting Norfolkers' ancestry, via Bounty and Pitcairn Island. Queen Elizabeth Avenue, See www.norfolkcyclorama.nlk.nf; The 1880 St Barnabas Chapel has brilliant stained-glass windows, one attributed to artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.
Dino's Restaurant, Bumbora Road. In a classic "island" house; superb chowders and Tahitian raw fish.
Hilli Restaurant, Queen Elizabeth Avenue. Try the trumpeter (sweet lip) and kingfish. Golden Orb Cafe, Taylors Road. Meet the locals over coffee dispensed by genial Jack. Blue Bull Grill, Taylors Road. Sample their Norfolk Blue beef.